"A Mighty Heart" lends new shape and palpable intrigue to a horrific, highly publicized real-life story.
Though we already know Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Pakistan in early 2002, director Michael Winterbottom brings urgency to this movie centered on the investigation of his disappearance. "A Mighty Heart" also immerses us in a world that our Western sensibilities sometimes prevent us from comprehending.
The film offers relatable guides to this world, in Daniel, or Danny, who vanished while investigating a possible link to "shoe bomber" Richard Reid; Mariane (Angelina Jolie), Danny's six-months-pregnant wife and fellow journalist; and the diverse group of journalists and law enforcers working alongside Mariane, trying to unravel the mystery of her husband's kidnapping.
Adapted by John Orloff from Mariane Pearl's memoir, the film doesn't present political and religious strife on the usual cinematic grand scale. Rather, it takes a grittier, street-level approach to the realities of everyday life in the unruly city of Karachi in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
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Via documentary-style handheld camera work, British director Winterbottom, familiar with this part of the world through his films "In This World" and "The Road to Guantanamo," captures the bustle of Karachi. "A Mighty Heart" also imparts the combination of excitement and dread that springs from being in a foreign environment, reliant on parties who might or might not be on the level. That driver who seems so helpful could be the neighbor, or brother, of an al-Qaida member.
Danny knows the dangers of this place. But breaking stories in post-Sept. 11 Pakistan requires risk-taking. To minimize those risks, he ensures that his meeting with a Pakistani cleric linked to extremist groups will occur in a public setting, at a restaurant.
When he doesn't arrive home, Mariane and Asra Nomani (a lively Archie Panjabi), the friend with whom the Pearls are staying, seek their own answers. Mariane and Asra, a writer on leave from the Journal, work their sources and the Internet.
Jolie brings a tensile strength to Mariane. Often contained but always sympathetic, Mariane needs to maintain a cool head as the Pakistani authorities come in and rumors start to swirl. People supposedly there to help turn out to have other agendas.
Amid the chaos, Mariane finds a true ally in Captain (the charismatic Irrfan Khan from "The Namesake"), the businesslike but empathic head of counterterrorism in Pakistan. With American diplomatic security agent Randall Bennett (Will Patton), two Journal colleagues and FBI representatives, Captain forms a command center in Asra's airy Karachi home.
When the kidnappers, accusing their Jewish American captive of being a CIA and then a Mossad agent, release a photo of Danny with a gun to his head, "A Mighty Heart" threatens to become simply depressing. But it doesn't, because Winterbottom underscores the intensity with which the investigators continue to pursue the criminals.
Winterbottom shows restraint, thankfully, in revealing the brutal circumstances of Pearl's slaying. But he is frank elsewhere. The camera follows closely as Captain and his men hit the streets seeking suspects, wheedling, threatening and on occasion, torturing.
American security agent Bennett, given a gung-ho gleam by actor Patton, expresses his relish for such tactics to Mariane. She looks alarmed. But such details add texture to a picture whose good-guy characters sometimes come off as too perfect.
Futterman lends Danny intelligence and a gentle spirit that reveals itself in flashback scenes of the Pearls in happier times. But the film's focus on Mariane and the investigation means Danny sometimes emerges more as a noble idea than a person.
One leaves "A Mighty Heart" wishing that Daniel Pearl, whom we know from real-life accounts as a well-rounded individual, were better developed as a movie character.
3 ½ stars out of four.
Rated R (language)